Xolo raises the bar for late night dining in Uptown Oakland
on May 11, 2011
It was past 11 on a Saturday evening. Sarah Light and Elyse Rainey were on BART en route to hang out in downtown Oakland, but there was a problem. Light was hungry and wanted a snack but hardly any dining spots are open late in the downtown area. Where would they go? The evening was off to a frustrating start.
“I was actively commenting on the ride down that there is no food between BART and Era [Art Bar],” said Light.
The two co-workers at a non-profit in West Oakland exited the station heading away from their destination—Light hoped the hot dog stand in front of SomaR Bar might be open.
“Then like a miracle we saw this place,” said Light. “Tacos! I said, ‘Let’s go!’”
Light had discovered Xolo, downtown’s newest restaurant, which is open until midnight on Friday and Saturdays, offering an alternative to the standard hot dog that most Oakland Uptown revelers have grown accustomed to for pre- or post- drinking sustenance. Light tried the taco al pastor and a taco with carnitas, while Rainey munched on an order of freshly made churritos, which are deep fried pastry strips rolled in cinnamon and sugar.
“I’m really happy this place is open,” said Light.
Xolo (pronounced SHOW-LOW) is the fourth restaurant from East Bay culinary super-couple Thomas Schnetz and Donna Savitsky, who are known for their popular Temescal restaurant Doña Tomás and taqueria Tacubaya in Berkeley’s 4th Street shopping district. Doña Tomás features composed plates authentic to Oaxaca and the coast, while Tacubaya is all a-la-carte offering tostadas, tacos and tamales.
Xolo, which opened at 1916 Telegraph on April 18 catty corner from the Fox Theater and a few doors down from older sibling Flora, offers a menu mainly comprised of tacos, burritos and a few interior Mexican specialties like pozole and birria.
Co-owner Schnetz,saw an opportunity for late-night food in the Uptown District, thanks to the recent proliferation of clubs, bars and music events in the surrounding area. “We’re seeing the area grow,” said Schnetz. “We wanted to do something different, and know people love burritos. The Fox gets out and 4,000 people walk out of the place. Paramount has shows all the time. There is so much going on all the time.”
Xolo is open two-story space with walls bathed in a striking powder blue and decorated with posters advertising bull fights, Mexican wrestlers and other tzotchkes that Schnetz collected over the years. “I wanted to create something funky and hip,” said Schnetz. The cooks work in an open kitchen that allows observation from the front, back and the seating area above. The restaurant is the short name for Xoloitzcuintil (pronounced SHOW-LOW-ITS-QUEEN-TILL), the Aztec dogs that sometimes sport mohawks, and the restaurant’s logo is an illustration of a mohawk-wearing Xolo.
Schnetz, who is of Mexican and German heritage, grew up in Sacramento and studied political science at UC Berkeley. When he graduated in 1989 he worked for a guy who made furniture and fixed up houses. Then Schnetz found his way into a kitchen. He started washing lettuce and doing other prep work at Square One in San Francisco. A few years later he worked his way up the line and was running a café in Sacramento with his brother. Schnetz met Savitsky while working at Square One. In 1998 the pair opened Doña Tomás in Temescal. They opened Tacubaya in 2003.
While Doña Tomás features Oaxacan flavors with a California sensibility and produce, like a carne asada marinated in adobo that comes paired with grilled asparagus, Tacubaya is a classic Mexican taqueria, and according to Schnetz, Xolo is embracing American-Mexican inspiration with the burrito.
At first glance a Xolo burrito wrapped in aluminum foil looks small compared to the submarine-shaped monsters one may find at Chipotle or in the San Francisco Mission District. However, Xolo avoids the trend of using rice as a filler to extend girth. Only the machaca—a burrito featuring shredded beef slow cooked with red bell peppers, onions and tomatoes—has rice. When asked about the alchemy of rice and beans in a burrito, Schnetz said that machaca has rice to help soak up the sauce from the meat.
You won’t miss the rice in the fabulous chile verde burrito, which yields a hearty meal of pork stewed in tomatillos and chilies, combined with black beans, sour cream, cilantro and diced red onions. The Xolo menu also takes some creative liberties with their burritos, like the “surf and turf” that pairs carne asada with shrimp sautéed in butter, then tops them with onions, garlic and jalapenos.
The hidden gem on the menu is the “danger dog,” an authentic Mexican street food treat from the northern state of Sonora. Unlike the bacon-wrapped hot dogs found in the Mission District that are paired with grilled onions and typical American condiments, the danger dog is a deliciously quirky taste of Mexico. It has to be seen—and eaten—to be believed. A giant bolillo roll is stuffed with a bacon-wrapped hot dog that gets buried under pinto beans, cheese, mayo, mustard, fresh avocado slices and pickled carrots and jalapenos.
“It’s one of those unique Mexican things,” said Schnetz. “You’ll go and there will be street vendors with bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and you can put all your favorite Mexican things on them. Right from the very beginning I knew I was going to put it on the menu. It’s perfect.”
Customer Nick St. Mary first stopped by Xolo when he noticed the taqueria while walking back to his car after visiting a nearby bar. He and a friend split the surf ‘n turf burrito and the crispy beef taco. “We were totally amazed,” said St. Mary. The taco “ tastes very fresh, even though it’s deep fried.”
The very next evening he returned with his wife Sarah St. Mary. While in transit she called to check on the hours and was elated to find out Xolo was open until midnight. After she split an order of three crispy beef tacos, a taco al pastor and chips and salsa with her husband, she lamented that people in Oakland have to feel rushed to eat. “If we’re getting off work at 7 or 8 o’clock we can’t go have a cocktail with a friend and be really casual about eating later,” she said.
But the couple is enthusiastic about late night dining options that are adding vibrancy to the Uptown area and giving Oaklanders more ways to spend their money locally. “I’m a local business owner and lived in Oakland for 13 years. My husband owns Watermelon Sugar Salon in San Francisco,” said Sarah, who owns Pretty Penny, a vintage clothing store in Rockridge. “We’re all local all the time, keeping our money locally in small businesses always.”
“With the Paramount, Fox and Uptown there’s a lot more traffic and it’s active down here,” her husband pointed out.
“We’ll be here a lot,” said Sarah. “A band can play across the street and say they went to this amazing taqueria in Oakland. This is going to be an experience for bands and people who come from San Francisco. We go to San Francisco, go out, then go to El Farolito. I think [Xolo] will be our spot. We need stuff like this.”
A little white later, four musicians were standing on the sidewalk, wolfing down boxes of their first taste of Xolo. Conan Neutron, a vocalist and guitarist for Victory and Associates, had just performed as the opening act for a benefit show at the Uptown, and was now trying Xolo’s shredded beef tacos.
“I suggested while talking to these fine gentlemen here that we should procure some food,” said Neutron while his fellow musicians polished off their meals. “I think we should go over there and try it out because as a fan of Oakland myself and an Oakland resident I appreciate giving money to awesome local businesses.”
Austin Pitts, singer and guitarist with Hurry Up Shotgun, was also a fan of the shredded beef tacos and of seeing more late night eateries in Uptown Oakland. “Here’s a hard shell taco that’s freshly fried and crunchy and fresh on the inside,” said Pitts still holding his take-out box. “I could eat tacos that tasted like this all day. I also had the pork with chile verde. It was verde good.”
Pitts hopes that a new late-night restaurant will raise Oakland’s cachet as place with an interesting nightlife. “What a brilliant idea,” he said. “This is a great location too. It shows Oakland as a place where there’s something going on at night besides people getting shot. There are actually artists doing stuff. There’s big shows. Paramount right now is full of people. If they knew about this place they could walk two blocks over.”
“There are so few places where you can get food later,” Neutron agreed, “which is punishing people that don’t keep a standard 8 to 5 schedule.”
Pitts peered inside his empty take-out box. “I think I might get another taco,” he said. “It would be my third taco tonight.”
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